The Last Word
The victims of 9/11 became larger in death than
they had been in life.
by Steve Miller '84
Following the September 11th attacks, The
New York Times began publishing a series of short obituaries
that had a big impact in New York. The obits ran a full page or
two in every edition. The Times announced that it intended
to run obits of every single person who had perished.
This was wholly unprecedented. Of all of the places one's obituary
can run in the United States, the Times is surely the pinnacle.
Recognition there bestows some sort of existential cachet to the
few who are chosen: "this was a man!" Despite a few complaints
that the accounts were idealized, the Times obits were very
well done, full of lively and evocative detail. Not all were completely
positive: a fair portion included broken marriages, recoveries,
difficult personalities, and the like. Nearly all were accompanied
by photos, an important status symbol in the iconography of Times
But these weren't quite "real" Times
obits. Most weren't written by the regular obituarists, and they
ran at the end of a special section devoted to the war, which, as
one media professional pointed out, "became a destination."
By extending its imprimatur to the ordinary victims of 9/11, the
Times made a statement about the nature of their victimhood.
Somehow these people were larger in death than they had been in
The problem was that the vast majority of the dead
were much larger in life than in death. Their obituaries, by appearing
in the Times (with its vast national circulation and influence),
made them into the nation's victims. By placing their obits at the
end of a daily section that featured huge photos of an alien and barren
landscape where the enemy lurked in foul lairs, it was as if the Times
was saying, "here's why we should care about the world."
It made me uncomfortable, in part because I am an obituarist by avocation
and I don't like it when obits are used for political purposes. But
it made me uncomfortable also because I almost became a subject. I
was in the south tower of the World Trade Center when the second plane
My first real job after Oberlin was at a newspaper.
A little gang of us had graduated, post-post-Watergate, intending
to make a living as reporters. I envisioned it to be something like
His Girl Friday crossed with, say, James Reston. We had all
worked at The Oberlin Review, and pretty soon we had jobs
at dailies and weeklies.
I landed on the night rewrite desk of the late
and not-widely lamented North Bergen (N.J.) Dispatch, assigned
to the lowliest among all jobs at most papers: obituaries. The night
rewrite man had the job of transcribing obits, most contributed
by local funeral homes. I filled out a form for each: age, cause
of death, occupation, achievements, club memberships, extracurricular
activities, family. Such treatment, still typical of most newspapers,
straitjackets any life. I rebelled by placing fictional obits of
my friends in the paper on slow nights. It is a testament to the
low status of the obits that nobody caught on. A decade later, no
longer an ink-stained wretch, I founded GoodBye!, The Journal
of Contemporary Obituaries, the first and still only publication
dedicated to an alternative vision of obituaries.
My favorite critique of obituaries came from
a drunk guy I met while at an obituary writers' conference in New
Mexico last summer. He spun around on his barstool and said, "Why
do you obituary writers lie all the time? Why don't you tell the
truth: that that guy is dead, and I'm glad he's dead?"
His buddy, also well into his cups, then told
a story. There once was a man who had lived nearby, a peeping Tom.
One day the man was discovered peeping into the window of a woman
by her husband. The husband killed the peeper with a shot through
the head. Because of his perversion, no one could be found to bury
the peeper. Finally, the storyteller's uncle, a furniture maker
and stonemason, agreed to manufacture a coffin. He planed the boards
and even carved a headstone. He surmounted the stone with a bust
he had sculpted himself. The bust had a hole drilled right through
That is GoodBye!'s message in a nutshell.
The way to commemorate the dead is with honesty and fervor, to recount
the things about their lives that have most mattered and to stress
their individuality. Foreshortened impressionism in a political
context, as practiced in the Times, dishonors their memory
even more than the forms I filled out at the Dispatch.
It is understandable for politicians to invoke
victims when explaining a nation's response. But running their obituaries
as the Times did struck me as manipulative and creepy. Perhaps
it is a better decision sometimes not to memorialize the dead. It
is good to contemplate the dead in their individuality. It is bad
to induct them into a club they would have never joined willingly.
On the day of the attacks I walked home through
a blizzard of debris from the collapsed towers and greeted my wife
near our home in Brooklyn. She thought I was dead, so our reunion
was dramatic. If I had died that day, I wouldn't have wanted to
be memorialized in the Times. At least not among the masses.
Inclusion with the regular obits would have been OK. Above the fold
would have been even better.
Steve Miller has held jobs in journalism, dropped out of grad
school, and sold his soul to Wall Street. GoodBye! is at www.goodbyemag.com